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Monday, January 31, 2005


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You sound like Dr. Muller. Which is a compliment, of course.

What should be interesting is how people define personhood. (Which I am not even going to try to do right now...maybe tomorrow, after you've gotten a few more responses).

And then...when does it begin? Well, I don't really think I can claim to know. At some point the human being is ensouled, and must be protected. I can't say when. So I adhere to the argument that if there is even a chance that the fetus may be a person, we must protect and not harm him/her. The chance, however small, of killing an innocent person entirely outweighs any rights a woman may have over her body and the contents of her uterus.

To put it another way - I have the right to dispose of insects and pests in my house. If I want to, I can fumigate the entire house with deadly gas. But if there's a chance that someone else may be in the house - if I don't *know* for sure that the house is empty, then it would be wrong for me to fumigate, because I would be recklessly taking chances when another life could be on the line.

The burden of proof, then, is really on the pro-legalised abortion side. Can they prove that the unborn human is not a person? If they cannot, then they are being immorally reckless in continuing to support a position which could be killing millions of innocents.

Wow, you got ripped a new one over at Cecily's. I will never understand how the "pro-choice" people can be so rude and accuse you of not listening, of being on your moral high horse, and then turn around and do basically the same thing to you. Not to mention stereotyping Catholics without truly understanding the teachings of the church. Nice. Anyway, good post, and good comments over there.

We accuse you of not listening because you do not. The fact is that definition of personhood as beginning at fertilization is NOT a fact.

Do you know that over 25% of pregnancies spontaneously abort? 25%! So does that mean that we are losing a quarter of our population on a regular basis? I'm sure you believe that is part of God's plan--there might be something wrong with the fetus, and God saw fit to not force that life into being.

But thanks to modern medicine--progesterone supplements, etc--fetuses unfit for human life implant all the time. Should people then become God and force those possible human into existence? Humans who will be unable to take an unassisted breath--who will always be in pain--and will live, in agony, only briefly?

I would love to see the need for abortion eliminted. I don't know ANY pro-choice person that feels differently. If we educated women about their bodies, distributed birth control easily, and taught young men responsible behavior, we could do it.

But let me guess; you don't believe in contraception either, right?

Also, the reason you were "ripped a new one" on my blog is because I had a d&x at the end of October--to save my life. My readers are very sensitive to anyone they feel is calling me a murderer.

Trust me--I wanted my son more than anything in this world. You can't imagine how much. But it wasn't a choice between my life and my sons--it was a choice between me and my son dying or just my son dying. There was no hope for any other outcome, so I ended his life in the least painful--TO HIM--way I could.

We will never agree on this issue. But I would love to know--is my life less important than my baby's? You are so very young to have such convictions. Walk a mile in my shoes. Would you have done it differently? Would you have been so cruel as to force a baby into the world--a baby without lungs, without skin, with only the ability to feel pain?

I can't imagine you are that cruel.

And now, a bit of history... it seems that "universally true" is a slippery fish. Regardless of one's faith (and I do believe it is "faith" we are discussing here, not "truth"), even the big players have changed their minds from time to time.

Pope Innocent III, in the 13th Century, defined "ensoulment" (the moment the soul enters the body) as the moment of animation or "quickening" (when the mother first feels fetal movement). This allowed for a rather tolerant attitude toward early abortions within the Catholic faith.

Then, 400 years later, in 1658, Heironymus Florentinius, a Franciscan, asserted that all embryos or fetuses, regardless of gestational age, must be baptized. But it would still be over two hundred years until Pope Pius IX, in 1869 that the Church removed the distinction between the moving ("animatus") and non-moving ("inanimatus") fetus. And it wasn't until 1917 that the current belief that ensoulment occurs at conception was codified into Church law.

Hmmm. Interesting.

(This entry is also on Cecily's blog.)

I'm pro-choice, but I believe late-term abortion should be illegal because the baby can live on its own and is therefore a person separate from the mother.

Before that time, I think personal beliefs guide our understanding of when a fetus becomes a person. Also, I believe in late term abortion to save the life of the mother because I think an existing life -- one proven viable -- should be saved over one we're not sure about.

I used to think I was pro-life but completely anti-abortion for myself. The past few weeks have taught me I MIGHT abort a baby instead of torturing it, as in Tay-Sachs or Trisomy 18. But it would tear me up. Thank God I'm not making that decision right this minute.

Ok, back to my point. If we're going to legislate something like this, we can't base it on when life begins. We must base it, like you said, on when personhood begins. Clearly we are allowed to take lives -- of ants, of leaves, of cows -- but not people.

If we're speaking scientifically -- (not about the soul, because really, leaves could have souls and that depends on your beliefs), an embryo is not a person at conception. It is a mass of cells that could or could not become a person. If we're calling an embryo a person, everyone who does IVF and doesn't implant every fertilized egg is a murderer.

So let's say instead that personhood begins when a fetus/baby can live on its own. This is still a confusing point because every fetus can live on its own at a different time -- as early as 24 weeks. But most ultra-premature babies cannot live on their own without a truckload of money and the best medical help.

Just to be safe, and protect the rights of the unborn child as well as the rights of the mother, let's make third-trimester abortion illegal, except in the case of harm to the mother, and then concentrate our efforts on education and prevention.

Hi, Arwen. Hi, Cecily. I haven't been to Cecily's blog recently and haven't seen the discussion that Arwen references. I will go check it out. I did visit Cecily's blog a while back and I went back and read the discussion that followed the tragic loss of her children in October. Cecily, you have my deepest sympathies on your loss.

However, I don't think the troll that visited your blog and took you to task for your decision was truly representative of the pro-life point-of-view. You had a therapeutic abortion, and although political debate on the best *method* of carrying out that procedure might rage pretty fierce, it's completely clear to me that it was impossible for you to carry that pregnancy any longer. Please don't blame all pro-life advocates, all Catholics, or all Christians for the ignorance of one person.

On the personhood question, I am with the first commenter, above. I'm not sure when personhood begins. I don't think it could possibly have anything to do with viability outside the womb. I believe it's best to err on the side of caution. As for the issue of spontaneous abortion of pregnancy--sure, there's a very high miscarriage rate in early pregnancy. It might even be a lot higher than what Cecily cites, because these 25% are confirmed pregnancies, and many fertilized ova simply don't implant. A baby's chances of surviving until birth improve steadily until the actual day of birth. Then the child enters the gauntlet of infant/child mortality. In some countries. 25% of children die before the age of 5. If you survive until you're five, it's still not guaranteed that you'll make it to 10, 20, or 30. Long term survival improves at some point, only to take a nose dive later in life. By the time you're a hundred years old, almost all of your contemporaries have died.

YES, we are losing significant portions of our population every day. Some people die soon after conception. Some die after spending a very long time on this earth and doing many wonderful things. I don't see how it impinges on the question of personhood, though. A natural death is distinctly different than one induced by medication or surgery.

First of all, I would like to say to the commenter who obviously has a lot of strong feelings about her decision with her baby, I'm very sorry that you had to go through that. The Catholic church does not teach that a woman should continue a pregnancy that will endanger her life. That said, she can induce labor and deliver the baby. A D&X in that situation is not the only way to end the pregnancy. No, the child will not survive, but no one has taken it's life, either.

It is also mentioned that 25% of pregnancies spontaneously abort. But that says nothing about when they become human. At conception their DNA is complete. Their form will change. Nutrition will be added. They will grow. But they are complete at conception. Being able to breathe on one's own is not a good indicator of when life begins. Then someone like Christopher Reeve would not have been alive for his last few years. He could not breathe on his own. A newborn still cannot live outside of the womb without someone to care for them. Nor are the body systems fully developed until one reaches their 20's. So when does life begin? Well, if you don't know for certain exactly when life begins, shouldn't we err on the side of caution? Slaves were once not granted legal personhood. We were wrong about that then, and we are wrong to deny the fetus their human rights now.

For anyone who says education and contraception is the answer, I have to ask them to look back at the last 30 years in this country. We made sex-ed available in school. We've made contraception widely accessible. And we've made abortion legal. Where is the decrease in unwanted pregnancy? Where is the decrease in STD's? Where is the decrease in abortion? It hasn't happened. Isn't that a sign that those things aren't working?

I've been ripped a new one over at recently. I recomment that pro-lifers check it out and make their voices heard.

The pro-life movement isn't about calling people murderers, judgement, or even anger. It is about educating people to the fact that millions of children are dying, pulled to pieces in a painful procedure that ends their life. If I wanted to call someone a murderer, I would start with myself. I had an abortion at 17. It nearly ended two lives. My babies and mine. We pro-lifers are well aware that women are hurt every day through this procedure that some promise will "save" them. We have not forgotten the mothers.

In fact, abortion HAS decreased--nearly 18% in the last five years--according to Planned Parenthood. We also have no way of knowing exactly how many abortions were performed prior to 1973, do we? But trust me--they WERE being performed.

Remember that in the vast majority of schools, sexual education is incomplete. Young women do not learn about what days in their cycle they are the most fertile and how to read their bodies. They are taught abstinence, primarily. If you remember, this policy was made federal law by Reagan. And if you believe that teen pregnancy and STD's have not decreased in the last thirty years, well, then, it's clear that teaching abstinence does nothing.

You are correct, Anne, that a d&x was not the only way to end my pregnancy. But it was the humane one.

Do you have any idea what happens to a fetus that is only at 20 weeks gestation during the birthing process? Bones that are too immature and fragile break, often piercing lungs or other vital organs. The skin is so sensitive and underdeveloped that baby is covered, head to toe, in hematomas. While the brain is not fully formed, the capacity to feel pain sure is. The baby's body is not yet capable of withstanding the intense muscle contractions that would deliver it.

Not to mention that once born, the baby would have tried, in vain, to breathe. Do you know what's it like to not be able to breathe? I do. I'm asthmatic, and have been since I was a child and there wasn't any way to treat it. It's terrifying.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that ending my son's life with a d&x was the most humane thing I could have done. Any thing else would have been selfish and cruel.

Educate yourself, please. Go visit some blogs of women who did deliver their babies--look at the pictures--and tell me again that's the best way to go.

Elizabeth, I must say that I was left entirely unsatisfied yesterday when you left Cecily's blog without responding to my comment. So I will try again here today.

First of all, I teach biology. And as I am about to tell my students next week, scientists define a living organism as something that has the following three properties: 1) metabolism; 2) controlled/regulated growth; 3) reproduction.

Let's talk about miscarriages in the context of these properties. If a fetus is miscarried because of a chromosomal abnormality, it clearly violated property 2, so can we even call it a life?

Please, don't jump on me all at once. I had a miscarriage, and it was probably the single hardest thing I ever lived through. Because *I* thought of the fetus as my baby. Because when the blood started flowing, I didn't see it as mine. I saw it as my child's blood.

But Elizabeth, you asked for a philosophical discussion. So here it is. That fetus was a baby to me, because of the emotional weight I put into that pregnancy, long fought for. But was it a life?

It was a fairly early miscarriage, and no chromosomal typing was done. So I have no idea whether it was a miscarriage due to a chromosomal defect, or due to my screwed up body.

And here is a philosophical question for you (it will be followed by a few more-- follow the logical ark, please): If a fetus is miscarried due to a chromosomal abnormality, was it a life?

If it was not a life, as defined by science, could it have possibly had a soul? Could it have been a person?

What of a fetus that is miscarried because the embryo implantation process creates a hemotoma that eventually chokes and kills the fetus?

What if they were the exact same gestational age? Was one a person, and the other no?

In the fancy language of math and logic, conception is withot a doubt a necessary, but clearly not a sufficient condition for life. Are you saying one can be a person even if one is not alive?

Then when does one become a person? What of a fetus that has no brain? Is that a person?

My point here is that I am not buying your flat declaration of the personhood of a fetus as a universal philosophical truth. The point is, and you actually agreed with it yourself, we just don't know.

And here's the rub. In one case we don't know. In another, we clearly do. We all know and agree that the woman, the mother, is a person. So what you are saying is that you value the potential person inside her more than you value her. She is just an incubator, and she will get to be a person again when the baby is born.

I am a Jew, and I am here to tell you that Cecily is right-- my religion values the life and health of the mother (even mental health) more than that of the fetus. But it won't make an absolute law I have to follow. My rabbi will advise me on what the law says, and then I will be free to make my own choice.

Here's one more question for you. And this is the one I am really curious to hear your answer to. This is the one I always come back to every time I have this conversation. If abortion is murder, is it wrong to kill a fetus to save the woman's life?

Here's what I wrote to you on this topic yesterday at Cecily's, and I am still interested to hear your answer:

You also provide no qualification on your belief that abortion is murder. So I assume (correct me if I am wrong, please) that you belive it to be wrong even in the cases where mother's life is in danger. In those cases, it's a zero-sum game, or even a loose-loose proposition (as was the case with Cecily). If you believe that abortion in case of danger to mother's
life should still be outlawed, you are making a moral judgement, one in which you are judging the woman's life to be worth less than that of her fetus. I wholeheartedly believe that each woman should have the right to make that judgement for herself. But I cannot fathom a society that would make it a law that she must die.

I am more than my uterus. I am a scientist and an educator. I am a friend
and a sister, daughter, wife. Now, I am also somebody's mother. I have an obligation to my daughter to stay alive to parent her.

I am not saying I would never choose a baby's life over mine-- I am not arrogant enough to say I know what I would do before I am in that aweful place. But I am saying you have no right to choose it for me.

My bottom line is, we just don't know. What we do know is that living, breathing, real women are hurt every day by making abortion illigal or impossible to get.

I wish they didn't need it. I wish no woman ever got raped. I wish no woman ever had unprotected sex unless she was trying to have a baby. I wish protection never failed. I wish we had a system in place that removed economic hardships and societal stigma from women and girls who want to carry the baby and give it up for adoption. I wish we gave them all the comfort and emotional support they needed. And I wish we did the same for all who would choose to have the baby, if they could afford it.

BTW, abortions went up in the Bush administration. Not wholy unexpected, since they tend to do that when women don't see a way to afford to have the child-- it's the number one cited reason for getting an abortion.

So why don't we all work to make these things happen? Or is contraception and honest sex ed just a deal breaker for you?

Bottom line now-- For me, it's the choice between a person I can see and a potential person. I have enough faith in my fellow sisters to believe that not one of them makes that decision lightly. I trust women. I think they are smart enough, mature enough, and self-aware enough to do what is right for them. And since I just don't know whether the fetus is a person, I must err on the side of the person I see, I must trust them in that judgement call.

As I need to be trusted.

Hmm, seems that many commenters do not accept the premise that fetal personhood is a philosophical or scientific matter rather than a religious or moral belief. This discussion seems to turn in circles as the two sides are arguing from different premises, and those varying premises make all the difference. I suppose the question is where does the burden of proof lie? What is the 'default' position? Do we assume relativism or do we assume that there is truth?

In this postmodernist society, I am not even sure, but as a scientist, I guess I always look to science first. Does anyone have a definition just of 'personhood', independent of the issue at hand? Do you think we need a definition of personhood?

Wow, I am amazed at everyones comments. I totally used to think that abortion was a black and white issue but you ladies have shown me so many grays. It is unfathomable how I feel right now. I feel enlightened & educated. You have given me so much to ponder. I usually don't dig deep enough into my brain and sould to form such opinions but this topic has honestly opened me up for such digging. Thank you and I cannot wait to continue reading and learning about this discussion.


No time to deal with everything you said, but there is a logical flaw in asserting that because ione memebr of species does not display one of the charactoristics of life (which you list as 1) metabolism; 2) controlled/regulated growth; 3) reproduction,) then that indicidual is not alive. Would you deny that an infertile woman, such as Arwen, is not alive because she lacks the ability to reproduce? Or say that a person with one of the numerous growth defects possible, like John Merrick (the "elephant man"), is not a living being because they lack "controlled/regulated growth"? The rules you cite apply to classifications, to species, but not to individuals. So please don't pretend they are an excuse for homicide (homicide= human+killing, a very technically correct term for abortion).

To Cecily: I am sorry that anyone would feel they had to choose between their child's life and their own - personally, I would rather my child undergo a pain I had no control over then undergo the excruciating pain of being riped apart while still inside me with my permission and co-operation. How on earth is a D&X supposed to be merciful? You wouldn't want to die like that! IN any case, the question of pain is irrelevant. Why is it that physycial suffering is the worst thing we can imagine? Do you not believe that people who suffer have diginity and value too?

but be assured that previous to the legalisation of abortion, the principle of double effect has always allowed for doing what is neccessary to save the life of the mother, even when it may indirectly kill the child. The boogeyman of an abortion necessary to save the health of the mother is just that - a boogeyman, a straw man argument, which has nothing to do with the vast number of abortions. It is emotional misdirection, and a poor rhetorical ploy.

The question remains - if you disregard the ridiculous "life of the mother" ploy, is there ever a situation in which it is worth taking the chance that you will kill an innocent person?

Forget centuries old discussions of "quickening" held by men that had no understanding of prenatal anything - they had their facts wrong, ok, but at least they still believed killing was wrong (the distinction was there btw, only to seperate venial from mortal sin - from the beginningt he church has condemned all methods of ending a pregnancy, but they weren't sure when they ought to baptise the expelled child). Even Hippocrates knew enough to add "I will not give a pessary to produce an abortion" to that famous oath. Don't use quasi-scholarship to try to confuse the issue when we now know that there is only one clear moment from being to non-being for the unborn child - and that moment is fertilisation, when he or she is given a unique genetic makeup. I am the same person I was then, considerably more developed, of course. But my personhood must be inherent to me, and not dependant on another's judgement, or on any outside factor like my level of poysical dependency. Otherwise, Hitler had every right in the world to define personhood in a way that excluded those he believed were pararsites on society. Sanger would have been right to plot the extinction of blacks and other minorities. Since we know these things are wrong, we know that personhood must be an objective truth, found outside of us, not in our opinion.

My position is based on a humble admission that I don't know where it starts, so I will fight to preserve even the chance of human life contained in the womb.

Your position is based on the arrogance that we somehow have the moral authority to draw a line somewhere and say, "well, maybe it's a person before then, but it's too inconvenient to try to protect, so we'll just allow him/her to be killed".

It's a very cowardly position.

Christine, I think there is a danger here of mixing philosophy and religion and calling the stew philosophy still.

I would agree that there is a universal truth. I just don't think any of us get to claim access to it. Our views on what that truth is are colored by our viewpoints, and, in large part, by religion. And it's this latter point that I believe escapes a lot of people (including Elizabeth) who claim to know that fetal personhood is a universal philosophical truth.

I think Elizabeth's argument (and that of a few commenters here) has holes big enough to drive a philosophical truck through. I tried to point some of them out. I will now wait for responses.

Last bit. I freely admit that I could be wrong. But I don't think anyone can philosophically PROOVE to me that I am wrong. The reason I think that is true is that a philosophical argument will at some point draw on some religious stance, even implicitly, as in the question of relavite worth of the two lives. And I don't think we can have an honest conversation without acknowledging this dependance.

You're right, Kate, we do just keep going around in circles.

You are not the same person you were at the zygote stage. It's absolutely ridiculous, and insane, to say so. When Julia discussed "reproduction" as a facet that defines life, she means the ability of cells to reproduce themselves--so while an infertile woman cannot "reproduce" her body repairs itself when it is injured, hence she has the capacity to reproduce.

As far as my son "being ripped apart in the womb" it's obvious that the extent of your knowledge about the D&X procedure is informed entirely by anti-choice progoganda. You clearly have NO idea how that procedure is actually done. My son's life was ended swiftly as opposed to the agony of "pain I couldn't control." You're wrong--I could control the pain he suffered, and I did.

Do you think it is cruel to euthanize animals when they are suffering beyond repair? Would you insist that a dog that has been hit by a car and has no chance of healing just lay there on the veterinarian's exam table even though the vet has the capacity to end that animal's suffering in a swift and painless way?

You may think that a bad example; a dog and a human baby are not the same thing, of course. But why is one act unspeakably cruel and the other murder?

Cecily, first off, I am sorry about the loss of your son; I read about it at the time and in fact posted similar thoughts. I don't think anyone here can fault you for the horrible decision you had to make. That is not the point here. Neither is miscarriage. I'd like to address a few things, though.

This is what I mean by stereotyping:
"I'm sure you believe ..."
"But let me guess; you don't believe in contraception either, right?"

How does anyone know what another believes? Something like 90% of Catholics use contraception.

As for being ripped a new one, there is no reason to tell Elizabeth to "STFU", calling conservatives morons, etc. as Ellen did. Elizabeth stated her position in a nice way, as did many of the pro-choice posters. The nasty ones are what I have a problem with, and it seems like too often, there are ad hominem attacks without addressing the issues. It's just "you're stupid, and here's why."

As to this:
"If we educated women about their bodies, distributed birth control easily, and taught young men responsible behavior, we could do it." -- Do we not have a responsibility to ourselves to not have sex if we are not willing to deal with the consequences?

Kate, really, it was all fine and good until the insults. I would have to answer that your position is based on the claim to know what is right to do in every situation, for every person. What can be more arrogant than that?

And speaking of arrogance, and particular situations, where do you get off telling Cecily what she did wrong? And in that tone? I assure you, the woman though things through. Between puking her guts out and crying her eyes out, I assure you, she thought things through.

And speaking for arrogant, as opposed to merciful, you would rather do what makes it easier for you. In Cecily's shoes, I mean, which you have never worn, of course. Could there be a better example of mixing your religious beliefs into the philosophy stew?

My position is based on humbly saying "I don't know and I have no right to judge your decisions, because I don't know. Between you, your partner, your doctor, and your God, may you find peace in whatever decision you make."

Ans as for my biology argument, elephant man had regulated growth, just not the same as you and me. Chromosomally abnormal fetuses do not have regulated growth. That is why they are lost. Most infertile people produce gametes, just not necessarily viable ones. And speaking of, I haven't been reading this site, but what makes you assume that Arwen is infertile, and not her husband?

Elizabeth, I am not trying to be hurtful to you with that point, esspecially on the day like you are having. I am really sorry you are going through the infertility hell. But I think automatic assumption that a woman is infertile comes from the same basic place that thinks women can't be trusted to know what is right and true, and what they should do.

Kate I do not think calling someone elses position "cowardly" is respectful. I could easily switch your arguement around to the following:

My position is based on a humble admission that I don't know where it starts, so I will fight to preserve the right of woman to make that decision herself.

Your position is based on the arrogance that we somehow have the moral authority to control another person's body based on information we've already admited we don't know.

It's a very cowardly position.

I agree that there is a hierarchy of rights. For the sake of arguement, I'm going to agree with Elizabeth that life begins at conception. Where we part ways is that I believe the woman's right to life (including privacy and bodily integrity) supercedes the fetus (or baby) right to live in her body.

We let already let people choose to "do as they wish" over another person's right to life. No parent is required to give an organ or even blood to their critically ill child. (surely a less invasive procedure than being pregnant and giving birth) We do not even require that the dead give up their organs, so great is our societies commitment to bodily integrity.

As for the inevitable "what's next? killing toddlers and the differently abled?" arguement, one fact we can all agree on is that Christopher Reeve was not living in someone elses body. Therefore, those arguements are rendered moot.

Lastly, who gets to decide when a mothers life or health is in danger? I've already seen bad science in this thread on that issue (there is not always time to induce labor and deliever the baby to save the life of the mother.) Does it have to be a 90% chance the mother will die or be left maimed? 50%? What if two doctors disagree? Does a woman's threat to kill herself count? Who ultimately gets to decide?

An instance that ones position is devoid of ones faith is different than that actually being the case. If abortion were a clear cut, logic-based decision, then it would be an easy issue. But it is not. To insist otherwise is to belittle the validity of the arguements on all sides of the issue.

Hello from Vienna, Austria, with which I want to say: English is not my native tongue, please forgive any shortcomings in my argument.

I have no idea how to answer the question when a human life becomes a person, but I do find the fact interesting that so many seem to agree on the fact that this is the ultimate question that will end all other questions.

For I know another question: Why should a potential human life be more important than other existing life-forms?

What exactly is this "personhood" that makes a human life far from being born and viable so much more "valuable" than the animals we kill without even thinking about it twice?

How can people totally agree on the fact that every woman has the right to terminate the life of hundreds or thousands of ants or other "pests" (= unworthy lifes?) just because they live somewhere they bother her, and at the same time condemn even the contraceptive coil (as some pro-life people do)?

What I want to say is: The question of "personhood" is, in my opinion, not the final one to be asked. It is an arbitrarily chosen factor, too.

Why not "life" per se? Boy, that would be inconvenient, wouldn't it ;-)

Don't get me wrong: I am NOT equating human life with other life, I am just asking, what exactly is "THE TRUTH"?

In my opinion it IS a question of values. So even if I agree and say: We don't know when the personhood of a human being starts, and yes, it's possible, even very likely that it starts at fertilisation, then I can still continue, "so?!?", and be pro-choice.

I understand all the pro-life people who think abortion is the taking of life, so logically they would want it outlawed.
However, since no one can agree on when life begins, or what constitutes life, I think we need to keep it with majority rules in a democratic country. We have to leave it up to individuals to make their own choices. I see no other logical conclusion. I can see completely how it would be painful for those who are pro-life to have to live with these circumstances.
I know several women who have had abortions. None of them under the awful circumstances Cecily was faced with. When I hear their stories, I think I would have done the same thing- with some of them. With others, I think I would have continued the pregnancy. Luckily, I have never been faced with the choice, so it's really not my right to judge.

On last comment before I take my son to homeschool group...

Elizabeth, You have declared "the personhood of a fetus is, first and foremost, a philosophical truth", "You only have two options here: either you believe that truth exists, or you believe that it doesn’t", and "No one is arguing, surely, that a toddler does not deserve the same protection that an adult does, simply because he is smaller and dependent on someone else for survival."

Your assumption that everyone shares your ironclad belief in statements like these preclude a real debate on the issue. Declaring that something is a philosophical truth is not the same thing as it actually being one. Declaring that only two options exist is not the same as there only being two options. People do argue that toddlers should not have the same protection as adults under the law (and, in fact, they do not.)

In otherwords, part of the clarity you are congratulating yourself for on this issue is because you've put the horse before the cart. Which is fine for your own personal beliefs, but to declare your personal beliefs as philosophical truths and the only options is disingenuous and not conducive for honest debate.

I think people are trying to be civil here, and I respect that.

I have a point of view that hasn't been expressed yet. My view is that the legality of abortion does not depend on whether non-viable fetus is defined as a "person" or not. When the fetus is non-viable, there is only one person who can sustain its life, the woman whose uterus it is in. That woman, should be required, by law, to provide her body for the fetus's medical needs. For example, can a woman be required by law to donate her blood to her ex-utero child (or a father?). No. We might argue that there is a moral obligation, but no law requires a person to donate blood.

So my view is that those who oppose abortions have all the right in the world to argue for moral obligations, but not to legislate what another person can do with their body, even if it affects what they define as a person (the fetus).


"The overall abortion rate in the United States decreased by 11% between 1994 and 2000, from 24 to 21 abortions each year per 1,000 women aged 15-44. This decline was not shared equally among all groups, and rates increased among economically disadvantaged women, according to a new analysis based on a survey of more than 10,000 women obtaining abortions in 2000-2001."
"Declines in abortion rates were especially steep among adolescents, particularly 15-17-year-olds. The rate for this group fell to 15 abortions per 1,000 women in 2000 from 24 abortions per 1,000 women in 1994, a decline of 39%. Both abortion rates and birth rates for adolescents have been declining since the early 1990s, reflecting that fewer teens are becoming pregnant. However, the proportion of adolescent pregnancies ending in abortion remained stable from 1994 to 2000. An AGI analysis examining reasons for declining teen pregnancy rates between 1988 and 1995 found that three-quarters of the decrease was due to improved contraceptive use, while one-quarter was due to delayed sexual activity."
"Although abortion rates have declined for most women, they have increased among the economically disadvantaged. High levels of abortion among economically disadvantaged women reflect that these women have high pregnancy rates, as well as a greater likelihood than women with higher incomes of ending a pregnancy in abortion. Overall, women who are better-off have lower pregnancy and abortion rates than poor and low-income women. As a result of the increase in abortion rates among economically disadvantaged women and a decline among middle- and higher-income women, the gap in abortion rates has widened and abortion has become more concentrated among economically disadvantaged women."

Okay, I know the long piece above didn't provided answers to Elizabeth's questions. But I thought it pertinant information for some here.

And, I can't type. That should be provide. Not provided.

Full disclosure: I am a Christian (not Catholic- Presbyterian), and I am against abortion in most cases. However I like to think that I am ethically against murder in the first place and against abortion as a special cause of that due to scientific reasoning.

Julia- you have some interesting points I to which I wish to respond.

“I would agree that there is a universal truth. I just don't think any of us get to claim access to it. Our views on what that truth is are colored by our viewpoints, and, in large part, by religion.”

Yes, of course there is bias, but that does not make the pursuit of truth hopeless! I am talking about truth as in reasoned, logical, empirical, tangible findings. Even in this, some bias can be mixed in but surely, over time, the evidence will crystallize and converge on some universal truth. And naturally science tells us what is and not what ought to be, and cannot guide us in developing ethical decisions. I simply believe that science and biology ought to be the starting point for any discussion on this topic.

“If abortion is murder, is it wrong to kill a fetus to save the woman's life?”

No, I don’t believe it is. When it comes down to it, just about any immoral action can be permissible under the right circumstances. For example, what about telling your grandmother that you love the sweater she made you for Christmas? What about instances of conjoined twins sharing an organ, where the choice might be to do nothing (and both will die) or separate them, giving the organ to only one (and the other will die). Is it murder to perform the surgery? I don’t think so. Same in the tragic case of abortion to save the life of the mother. It is only rational to protect what life can be protected. Women should be free to make their own decisions in such situations.

“If a fetus is miscarried due to a chromosomal abnormality, was it a life? If it was not a life, as defined by science, could it have possibly had a soul? Could it have been a person?”

I can’t answer this (who could?), but I am not sure that it matters. You are describing an accident of nature, not an intentional behavior. To be honest I don’t know (with 100% certainty) when the fetus becomes a person with a soul, but wouldn’t it be much better to err on the side of caution rather than to abort a human being? Generally, I would argue that abortion is permissible in the case of an acardiac or anencephalic fetus; there is obviously no life to protect in such cases. But where there is even a question of personhood I think we should be circumspect.

Even in the Roe v. Wade decision, no ONE SINGLE mention is made of when life begins. Here is the greatest law of our land, and they stay a mile away from that question, even in determining whether "exterminating" that something in the uterus legal or not.

That smacks of hypocrisy in ways you can't even imagine. It seems to me that when discussing life, should we err on the side of life if at all possible?

(I just want to preface this by saying that there were two Ellens posting at Cecily's, not one, and I was not the one making nasty comments about you, Elizabeth.) I find abortion possibly the world's most wrenching and awful issue, in that I just can't embrace either position fully, because I agree with both sides. It's a little embarassing, really, because that lack of a stance doesn't make sense to my friends on either side of the debate. I have to disagree with the poster who commented that it's ridiculous to keep abortion legal for the (admittedly more rare) cases to save the life of the mother. I have an aunt who almost died to give birth to a stillborn baby - back in the 70's when abortion was already legal, but hospitals didn't have the technology to know that the baby had been long dead.
I can also say that when I was in the hospital, diagnosed with pre-eclampsia just like Cecily was, no one in my pro-life Catholic family said to me, Ellen, we think that you ought to die along with the baby because that baby will be premature if delivered (as they have to be to cure preeclampsia) and it's not right to bring him out now. My son and I are fortunate that I was further along than Cecily was, but we still didn't know what was going to happen. Babies can die at 31 weeks gestation just as surely as they can die at 24. Of course, at 31 weeks, you have a chance.
Right now I am 30 weeks pregnant. Every day of this pregnancy, I feel like I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the nightmare to begin again. (It's probably why I read infertility blogs - only my friends who have miscarried understand my sometimes overwhelming fear.) It takes every ounce of faith I possess to live like this, knowing how likely it is to happen again. What happened to Cecily is my deepest, darkest terror. I've told myself from the begining that I can live through this again as long as it's not worse, and what happened to her was so much worse. She had no good choices. Her son had no hope, after all her struggles to bring him into this world. I think that whatever we think about the issue itself, we ought to be respectful of the agony she suffered, and refrain from judgement (like we're supposed to anyway!) about what is surely the toughest decision anyone would ever have to make.

Oh, Ellen, I'm so sorry you are living with such fear. It's an awful place to be.

I'm so glad that this debate has remained, for the large part, civil.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for further explaining your views and educating us, even if we'll never agree. This has been the most detailed and well articulated discussion I've ever seen.

But I'm way to emotional, myself, to continue to participate. I can only talk about what happened to my sons and defend my choice for so long before I have to remove myself from the argument.

Please don't think this means I regret my choice--I don't. Not in the least. But I don't have it in me to defend myself any longer.


"You are describing an accident of nature.."

Unfortunately, I am not. It's not an accident. It's a feature. It's a tradeoff that was worked out through milenia of evolution (there, shoot me, if you want, but if you are a scientist, I think you have to accept evolution).

Selective advantage was given to women who could preserve their gametes for the first say 15 years of life before it was even remotely safe for them to reproduce. Bonus points if they could maintain them longer.

Extra bonus points for being able to make a new gamete that is a mix of what you got from your mom and dad (that part was worked out way before humans, but still a necessary feature). That means breaking chromosomes apart, and putting them together with pieces that came from the other parent.

We are talking about DNA here. Amazing molecule, to be sure, atendant with all kinds of amazing machinery to keep it intact. But not perfect. It breaks down.

There was simply no evolutionary advantage to developing a better system of keeping our gametes. Note that men have it better-- they make new ones often. We are stuck with all (well, new evidence says we may be able to make more, but we are mostly using what we had) of ours when we are born. Perhaps the vital genes are distributed on the chromosomes in a way that assures that most abnormalities would result in early miscarriages (interesting research question-- I am sure someone in genomics will get on it some day), thus preserving the life of the woman for future procreation attempts. The species needs an average woman to give birth to, on average, one daughter. Seems like the current system allows for that, so no real need to improve-- no selective pressure.

It's not an accident. It follows from natural law. It would be true whether you were talking about humans or martians-- a biological system only improves under selective pressure, and only enough to be competitive.

That it's not an accident is cold comfort to anyone who has ever experienced miscarriage or any other horror associated with trying to have a family. But it's not an accident.

"To be honest I don’t know (with 100% certainty) when the fetus becomes a person with a soul, but wouldn’t it be much better to err on the side of caution rather than to abort a human being?"

I also would like to err on the side of caution-- by allowing the woman in question to control her own body and life. It just depends on what our value scale here is. Yours seems to be on the unborn as more valuable than the woman. Mine is the reverse.

Interstingly, I don't see any reason why we couldn't agree to work together towards the goals I outlined in the post above-- to make it economically and emotionally a viable option for as many women as possible to choose to have the baby, either to raise themselves, or to give up for adoption. Wouldn't that be the world we would both want to live in? And I am willing to bet that in that world there would be far fewer abortions than if Roe was overturned today. Don't you think?

Wow. Great comments! I haven't the time to read all of them or even begin to digest the debate, but here's my two cents anyways.

I was steadfastedly pro-choice my whole adult life - until I got pregnant. And ever since then, I firmly believe that life begins at conception. Which obviously means I think abortion is murder and that your arguments are right-on.

Amanda, what you said is very interesting. Your belief system was changed by an experience. And now you believe what you believe. But what follows from your beliefs (or what I am assuming based on your agreement with the post) is that you want society to codify your beliefs into law, to make it encumbant on every woman in the country to act on YOUR beliefs. A bit harsh, don't you think?

One of the reasons I hate talking about this subject is that there's so little chance of anyone meeting in the middle, or doing anything other than just re-articulating their point of view. That said, I think this has mostly been really measured, and even caring discourse, which is awesome. You deserve a lot of credit for setting the right tone, Elizabeth. And I think that Julia is right - instead of trying to change each other's minds on this subject, maybe the best we can wish for is to commit ourselves to helping each other and creating a better world for us all to live in, rather than arguing about our ideals. Sorry - enough Pollyanna for the day...

Amanda - A simple question for you..

If abortion is murder, are all terminations wrong?

I think what JuliaKB said, "But what follows from your beliefs (or what I am assuming based on your agreement with the post) is that you want society to codify your beliefs into law, to make it encumbant on every woman in the country to act on YOUR beliefs. " is the crux of things for me. I have great pride in my country and the freedoms it was founded upon. I value all of my rights and those of my fellow citizens. Therein lies the rub. Whatever I think is the right answer must not trample a right of someone elses. The conflict between the right to life of a fetus and the reproductive and medical rights of the mother create a conflict that is very difficult to resolve into clear lines and boundaries.

I used to think I'd never have an abortion, but was on the fence when it came to the legalities. Now that I've read so many stories like Cecily's I know enough to not predict my actions. There is no way to predict how I'd feel in any circumstance-especially ones I couldn't imagine in my worst moments.

I'll also add that I am not Catholic, but I did marry into a large Catholic family that spans the breadth of commitment to the Catholic church. I respect Elizabeth for putting herself and her beliefs out here and for speaking so eloquently on her beliefs, principles and thoughts.

All the comments are running together in my mind now. I think Kathleen and Juliakb have said what I am thinking.

Why does the life of the fetus usurp the right of the woman? If killing a fetus through an abortion is horrific why are you not remotely horrified by forcing a woman to carry a child to term? Let's go to how we create the world the pro-life arguers want.

Here is the proposed legislation. Every conception is life and therefore protected at the expense of the incubator/woman/mother.
Sec. A The incubator will be required by law to carry the fetus until natural birth of said fetus. If incubator refuses to act in protection of said fetus, incubator will be incarcerated until such time as viable fetus may be extracted from her body. Incubator will be required to maintain adequate nutrition and hydration levels. Any failure to maintain proper levels will result in a warning by the monitoring commission. The second failure will result in incarceration as stated in Section A.

Now the incarceration units will be lovely homelike hospitals where the incubator will be showered with positive images of child bearing and adequate nutrition and hydration. At the end of confinement, the incubator will be given the option of taking the new child home with her (if it is healthy enough to leave). Once released, the child has attained regular status as a citizen. As such, the incubator assumes all expenses and child rearing. The State will no longer assist in the child's health care, rearing, affection, safety, security or love. Once child reaches incubating age (if female), Section A again applies.

I would not ever want to be in a position to have to; however, I am will not stand for a Country to infringe this hypocrazy upon its good and loyal citizens. Everyone who has an aborting is not irresponsible and selfish and looking for a convenient way out. The issue is gray especially before that baby can live independently of its mother outside the womb. I say we err on the side of the citizens we have. How slippery is our slope sliding towards the scenario above?

ONe thing I am noticing here -- the only discussion seems to be about choosing a potential person (fetus) vs an actual person (the mother). What is the percentage of women who have abortions due to the "life of the mother" issue? I read on another blog that it was ~3%. It's in the comments here, about 1/3 of the way down:
Personally, being prolife, I also understand teh need to protect the life of the mother. I would like to think that most people feel the same way.

But what about the other 97%, that are for convenience?

Mary, Define "convenience." And who gets to decide that?

Setting aside the "life of the mother" for one moment, why is it that a fetus should a legal right to their mothers womb but that same child, minutes after they are born, does not have a legal right to, say, their fathers kidney? Should there be no difference between "right to life" and "obligation to keep someone else alive with your own body?"

Elizabeth, I think your points are very valid and I agree with them. No matter how hard you try, pro-choicers can not be swayed and vice versa. It is an issue very much like politics. People are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they can not see anything else. I myself have been on different sides of the fence where this issue was concerned.
I was pro-choice until I actually had an abortion for medical reasons. I felt it was "my only choice". Now I see that I actually had many choices BEFORE I got pregnant. The truth is now I am pro-life.

I am a medical professional and I believe (note: the words are I BELIVE) that life begins at conception. I have cared for many pregnant patients and have deliveried pre-term babies who go on to be healthy happy little kids. I have also seen babies born stillborn and yet others die a few hours after birth for whatever reason. I think that a mother's life supercedes the fetus but RARELY is it true that the mother will die without delivery. In these cases though, as I said before, the mother's life should be the most important. I do not agree with D&X though. I have extensive knowledge as to the procedure and still I am against it. The choice to terminate is personal and very difficult and I can not judge anyone on how they choose to play out these decisions. I am so sorry and can offer my deepest sympathies for anyone facing these difficult decisions. No matter what choices we make we are all human and deserve some respect wether we agree or not.


I completely agree. I can accept that personhood begins at conception, if it is true that is when our DNA is completed.

However, as a person today, I don't have the right to anyone else's kidney. I can't even force someone to give me blood, a relatively low-pain procedure from which full recovery can be expected in hours.

I can't accept that a person loses rights by being born, therefore, I can't believe a pre-born person has the right to another person's uterus. Nor the right to force them to go through the birth process, which is not a low-pain procedure from which one can expect full recovery in hours.

Convenience is "I'm not ready to have a child right now." Convenience is "I can't afford a child right now." Convenience is using abortion as birth control.

This has been a very interesting discussion. I stated my views about personhood above, and have followed what others have said with interest. It occurs to me that Cecily's experience probably has more to do with euthanasia than abortion. Just a thought.

I also wanted to say that I have an advanced degree in the biological sciences and the argument about the definition of life doesn't make any sense to me. Sorry. Those definitions are supposed to apply to species, not individuals within a species.

I was once grudgingly pro-choice, feeling that I could not "force" my "belief" on other women. It took having a child myself for me to realize that there are many cases of law where we "force" people to adhere to the majority moral "belief." Not everyone believes that you should have to be a certain age to get married, but we happily legislate it. There are many examples. What it came down to for me was the fact that abortion is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We're talking about taking a person's life vs. inconveniencing someone for nine months. Now if it really is life vs. life, then you could choose either one and be "correct." But if it's life vs. embarrassment, or life vs. getting in trouble with your parents, or life vs. everyone knowing you had an affair with a man of a different race, then I'd say the decision has to be made for life.

I enjoyed the dialogue above about the "incubator." But I wonder--why in every such argument that I've seen is it included that the woman is required to raise the child she bears? This is not true. In fact, some hospitals now have special arrangements for abandoning unwanted babies, so eager is our society and our government to take this burden from women who don't want it.

For what it's worth, I was against abortion before I was a practicing Catholic. Based on what I considered to be fundamental moral, natural, and scientific principles, I felt that it was unethical to abort a pregnancy without a compelling medical reason. Much later, when I started church shopping, the teachings of the Catholic church struck me as upholding what I had perceived to be a "philosophical truth."

Dear Readers,

While I went out to rehearsal and a meeting this evening, my blog was hijacked by Holly. Followers of Cecily's blog might remember Holly as the person who hounded Cecily after the death of her sons, telling her that one of them could have lived.

Cecily blocked her on her own blog, but Holly showed up here tonight, harassing Cecily again. Those of you who were here saw the drama. Cecily was understandably upset at Holly's completely inappropriate attack, and so she fought back. She then emailed me and asked me to delete her comment, so I did. I also deleted Holly's (and blocked her IP address) and I deleted the parts of others' comments that referred to her, as well. I was very happy with how civilly this whole discussion had been going so far, so I'd like to pretend Holly never happened to it.

I also want to take this chance to thank you for being so good to each other. This truly is one of the most articulate and most charitable discussions on this topic that I have ever seen, and you all are responsible for that. God bless you.


Thank you for saying what I wanted to say (but so much more calmly!) I have to admit that I get rather worked up about this topic (more so right now since my pregnancy is making me rather emotional about the helplessness of unborn infants). According to society, I have more obligations to my dog than I do to the child I'm now carrying within my womb.

Soemtimes I think that as soon as a man or woman reaches reproductive age they should be required to sign a legally binding document attesting that "as I have received education on the purposes and consequences of sexual intercourse, and as I understand that the naturally and biologically intended end of intercourse is the production of human life, I now accept responsibility for any human life I willfully produce through the intentional use of my sexual faculties, until such time as that responsibility can be handed over to the state or other willing individuals." And then the men should be required to pay prenatal costs out of pocket for any children they father, as the women patiently await birth. Just so that it would be clear to everybody that there is always a choice involved here, and that prolifers are not anti-choice...we're just anti one particular choice.

After all, is 9 months so long a time? Have we grown so small as to think that too long a time?

Believe me, there is no hate here. I hate poor rhetoric and straw man arguments, but I bear no hate towards well-meaning women who uphold the legalisation of abortion. I don't hate any of you. I just have pain and pity and sorrow. It shouldn't be this way. What kind of cruel society pits women against their own children? How can we possibly think that this has anything to do with elevating a women's rights - at the cost of her children? Obviously we have a long way to go.

Kate, you know, if it's responsibility you want from people, you should start with it yourself. I believe you owe Cecily an apology. Are you big enough for that? Or would you rather make an excuse that your pregnancy is making you emotional?

And speaking of that, you should know by now that pregnancy is not a picnic. And it boggles my mind that a pregnant woman would say that someone else should sit still and patently await birth. A cursory view of your own blog prooves that you are not that good at patiently waiting for something that is out of your hands. And it's not even affectiong your health. Your freedom, your financial situation, but not your body. But that is besides the point.

And here is the point. The attitude you exhibit with that comment is really mysogynistic-- here little lady, go sit in the corner and wait patiently until you can have your body back. What is that? You are throwing up? Well, just be patient. Cramps, stretch marks? Boobs that hurt and throb, and should not be thought of, let alone touched? Be patient. You can't sleep? Be patient. You can't eat? Be patient. You are not important. Be patient.

Kate, I endured all those things, and I think I had an easy pregnancy. Oh, and I bled and had to be in a hospital a number of times before delivery. And I think pregnancy was one of the best experiences of my life. And when the time comes, I will try to have it again.

But for me to FORCE someone else to undergo this experience?

"What kind of cruel society pits women against their own children?"

Your kind of cruelty certainly does, Kate. The kind that pits a woman against her pregnancy. The kind that declares that pregnancy more importnat than the woman. The kind that tells her to wait patiently.


I will certainly apologise to Cecily. I could have tried to be more patient than I was, and more gentle in my phrasing. Being emotional because of my pregnancy is not an excuse, but an explanation.

That said, I don't think it is cruel to say that a choice was made at the point a person had sexual intercourse. I do not believe that rape is ever moral - that does take the choice away from a person. But when you choose an action, you choose its consequences.

So, for the vast majority of abortions, that element of choice was already present. I am now a mother. So are you. If at some point in the future, after my child is born, I decide I don't want to be a mother, I can't go back and undo that reality. If my husband and I are unable to buy groceries, or if this child develops an illness that makes them a financial burden, still I can't make them not be, and we would all agree that it would be immoral for me to shoot my (born) child.

I understand that to legalised abortion proponents, these arguments seem spurious. You don't seem able to see the connection between abortion and killing a two year old. But in many ways the two year old is the greater burden (definately more time consuming). Intellectually honest pro-abort ethicists have already extended the hypothetical framework that would make such post-natal culling possible and even palatable (look up Princeton ethicist Peter Singer).

If I lived in a society that told me that I could not be both a mother of a two year old and finish college, that told me that the demands of my two year old were an impossible burden, that called two year old children 'parasites' and was unwilling to extend aid or health care coverage sufficient and affordable enough to help me care for a two year old, that treated having a two year old as a medical condition requiring constant supervision and expensive care and interventions, and in the end told me that my choice was clear - my own quality of life and happiness, or the two year old's life, but not both...I would call that society cruel.

And that is why I call our society cruel. Becasue college girls have abortions because the college health clinic will give them $400 dollars for an abortion, but not prenatal coverage or on site daycare. Because women with families have abortions because they do not have the extended family and community support to be confident in taking on the responsibility for one more child. Because young women are told that adoption will haunt them forever but abortion will make their problems disappear. Becasue even younger women - girls - are afraid to talk to their parents, and sometimes more afraid and ashamed to admit how they were used by older men. Because the workplace values and rewards 60 hour weeks more than our society values and rewards parenthood.

That is the problem. I'm sure we can all, pro-whatever, be at least agreed that we need to work to provide a more supportive environment for pregnant women.

Elizabeth's original post was about whether secular moral philosophy can help settle questions about fetal personhood.

Secular moral philosophers usually try to base their conclusions on widely held moral intuitions--especially on intuitions that are held by diverse people regardless of their religious affiliation.

In the case of fetal personhood, there's a growing academic literature in secular moral philosophy about whether or not a fetus is a person.

David Oderberg in "Applied Ethics" (Blackwell, 2000) reviews several secular moral arguments to the conclusion that the fetus is NOT a person--Peter Singer is an example of someone who takes that position--and finds significant flaws in them.

I don't think it's possible to do tightly reasoned moral philosophy in the comments section of a blog.

My purpose in posting this is to say that there are many secular moral philosophers who would agree with Elizabeth's thought that surely the question of fetal personhood can be addressed without bringing in religion. Some of them (like Singer and Mary Anne Warren) argue that the fetus is not a person. Others, like Oderberg and Timothy Chappell, believe that the non-personhood arguments are fatally flawed and that the fetus is a person.

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